Travel: China and its rising superpower

The dazzling lights and cacophony confuse the senses. Clawing my way through a sweating mass of humanity, I am at once assaulted with the sour stench of unwashed bodies, oddly mixed with the distinctive scent of Chanel’s No. 5 perfume.

The battle is won; I have found my destination. Walking through the market riddled with cheap imitations, my foreign features mark me as a target.

The first one approaches. “You like cheap?” he asks, as he shakes a watch in my face. “Rolex, Prada, what you want?” I wave him away as my companion unwraps the iPod he bought from the fake market. The box is empty.

Shanghai, China, a city of skyscrapers extending as far as the eye can see. A city of smog, of wonder, of crowds. The city has a population more than three times larger than that of New York City, and you can feel it.

Scientifically crafted and meticulously managed, Shanghai appears at first glance to be a typical Western mega-city complete with flashing advertisements, enormous structures and the faint but lingering odor of petroleum. The birthplace of the Communist Party of China, a red flag billows triumphantly over the city.

Walking down a street near People’s Park in the center of the downtown area, a red and yellow floral monument to the hammer and sickle is oddly contrasted by a distant Nike advertisement. Underneath the canopy of steel and glass, I sit down for a conversation over a cup of traditional tea from Hangzhou.

“I wanted to be an artist once,” said a citizen of the People’s Republic. “I didn’t score high enough on my aptitude test, and there are too many artists, so I was told that now I must study international business.” My eyes bulge with surprise, but such stories are common when the needs of the many are the paramount concern. Following a recommendation, I slip on my boots and set out to explore and learn more about the modernizing mega-city.

Visitors taking a casual stroll through the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum will encounter a suspiciously propagandizing section of portraits titled “Leaders Care,” which displays photographs of China’s Communist officials posing happily with Chinese laborers at major building projects. The catchy slogan of “Better City, Better Life” is engraved over a golden model of downtown Shanghai.

Towering over the graceful curves of the museum are the titanic, wondrous skyscrapers overlooking the Huangpu River. Nearby, the evident prosperity and diversity of the shuffling crowds are a testament to the late Deng Xiaoping, the former chairman of the Communist Party who is credited with moving China toward a controlled market economy. Though the positive effects of rapid modernization are easily observed in an area often showcased to foreigners, a few winding curves and a taxi ride later, the story is much different.

Huddled children grasp the arms of malnourished parents, sprawled wearily in the gutter. An impoverished woman, ravenously scarfing down the contents of a plastic cup, devours what appears to be an oil-covered fish soaked in filthy water from a polluted source nearby. Tucked away behind the glitz and glamour of the Westernized downtown area, Shanghai’s slums are invisible to the wealthy foreigners slurping mai tais on a sky bar 87 floors above the ground.

Much of the carefully crafted imagery of Chinese glory and beneficent development are as blatantly counterfeit as the Prada bags that can be purchased at a fake market, but there is no denying that China is making some very impressive strides forward. Drained from the journey into the slums, I head back by taxi toward the downtown area after a necessary detour.

Desiring a comforting ritual that survives even while more than 6,400 miles away from home, I reach into my wallet for a few bills of the People’s Currency and find Mao Zedong’s stony face staring ominously back at me; five minutes later, I am enjoying a steaming hot cup of joe from the local Starbucks Coffee. The familiar flavor was wonderfully authentic. After draining the glass, I light a cigarette and walk away.

About Peter Cornett